Sunday, 26 March 2017

Are you prone to hero/martyr syndrome? I know I am...

I was recently working with a group of educational leaders, looking at the "Hero's Journey". This seems to be a rough import from Joseph Campbell's work on mythologies into leadership theory.

We talked about arriving as newbie leaders in difficult situations.

The school is not as good as the previous headteacher and governors thought it was. We start delving into stuff and find out that one thing after another isn't fit for purpose. Pretty soon, we are feeling despair about ever getting to the bottom of all the problems, let alone fixing them.

Or we knowingly take on a school in difficult circumstances - but find that the complexity and misery involved isn't adequately described by blunt, official terms like failing or inadequate.

The "hero's journey" trope suggests that now we fall into a kind of abyss. And it's only by accepting that we are in this abyss, and getting others to accept it, that a kind of rebirth can happen.

Back in 2009, I blogged about my own version of this - a horribly difficult 100 days during my first headship.

I've been thinking some more about this, and about the belief that it's only through suffering that transformation can happen.

Sometimes, when groups of heads and other leaders in education get together, it can almost seem like there is a Dutch auction going on - who's lowest, who's having the worst experience, who's suffering the most?

We measure ourselves against benchmarks like: who's working the longest hours? Who has the worst results, the most unreasonable governing body, the trickiest parents, or the bunch of children with the most difficult behaviour?

I'm not writing this as if I have any kind of perspective on it - I'm part of this faux-martyr culture.

I would feel too guilty to tell one of my peers if I had a day when I left work early, or a weekend when I completely switched off rather than working hard to catch up.

That's despite being in a context where parents, governors, children and the community are supportive.

Things are only going to get tougher in schools in the years ahead, and I suspect that my default response to difficult times is the same as Boxer's in Animal Farm: "I must work harder".

But isn't it worth thinking up a different story? Whilst I see how we are gripped by the "hero's journey", it is putting headteachers and school leaders far too much in the centre. It personalises things too much. Medieval heroes may have brought about atonement through personal suffering, but surely that's not a good analogy for school leadership in 2017?

Heroic feats and personal suffering are not required for effective leadership.

The obvious danger is that in trying to do our best, we are paying a personal cost that's too high.

Equally dangerous is the self-aggrandisement which is involved. We puff ourselves up and make ourselves the centre of everything - and we stop being much use to the people we work with. The work gets de-centred by the person: hero/martyr complexes are ultimately narcissistic.

Let's not forget what happened to the heroic Boxer who thought that every problem could be solved by working harder. His heroic death: to be carted off to the knacker's yard and boiled down for glue.

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